Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Third Annual Jody-intz Awards (My Take on the Best Young Adult Books)

This year I almost didn't make a list of my favorite books. This year I'VE got a book out and I thought it might be weird to judge the um, competition.

But it doesn't feel weird. Maybe because I don't view other books as competition.

There's room for lots of good books out there. When I read a really good book, I'm thankful for it, inspired by it, grateful that I live in a world where good books are floating around. Now, with my own book floating around, the grateful feeling is exponentially amped up. I walk into a bookstore or a library, and I see my little book on a shelf next to books by writers I admire. (And I must say here that the shelf real estate in the C section is particularly fine. Rae Carson!! Kristin Cashore!! Jennifer Castle!!) I don't think I will ever get used to the idea that something I've written is parked next to books by these authors. And if I ever do, someone, please, slap me.)

Now without further ado--here are the books that I loved last year--the ones that got me thinking and feeling and swooning and sighing and crying--

1. In the nail biter/page turner category The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey. Yikes is all I can say about this one. Aliens have taken over the world and gone all Invasion of the Body Snatchers on us. This book's got action and heart. Warning: clear your calendar. Once you open the first page, you will not be able to put the thing down until you reach the end.

2. Best Beginning of a Series. Tie between Divergent by Veronica Roth and The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. Okay, first--Divergent. (Yes, I have come late to this party. The book was released several years ago but for whatever reason it was not on my radar. If you haven't heard of it, you will soon. The movie's coming out in March.) The Raven Boys. Oh, Maggie Stiefvater, how I adore you and everything you have written. Just got back from a long car trip and listened to the second book in the series, The Dream Thieves. Adored that one too. For the uninitiated, this series has action and lush writing and moments that will stop your heart. I was hooked from the very first line: "Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she'd been told that she would kill her true love."

3. Best END to a Series. Hands down winner The Bitter Kingdom by Rae Carson. This trilogy blew me away. I'm not a fantasy fan, typically, but the strong female lead Elisa drew me in and the complex and non-stereotypical love interest Hector KEPT me in.

4. The Writer-I-Just-Discovered-and-Read-Every-Book-She-Wrote-in-a-Row Award goes to Courtney Summers. JEEZ is the word that sums up Summers. The woman knows how to worm her way into the mind of a tormented and tormenting teen girl. I've read criticism of Summers' books--that the female leads are unlikeable. Maybe. But oh man, you will be viscerally pulled into these girls' stories. My favorite was Some Girls Are. I stayed up half the night reading about how the tables are turned on a "mean" girl.

5.  The Double Punch of Brilliance and Heart Award is a three way tie between September Girls by Bennett Madison, 17 & Gone by Nova Ren Suma, and Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos. These books made me FEEL and THINK and had the added bonus of making me forget I am a writer, by letting me simply fall into their stories.

6. I was going to mention Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell in that last category but I think it deserves a category all of its own. I rarely cry while reading books, but this one got me tearing up after reading the Dedication Page. (I'd write the line that made me cry, but if I did, I'd start crying again. So, sorry. You will have to pick this book up yourself and see what all the fuss is about.)

7. Best Twist: What I Was by Meg Rosoff. This book was written several years ago but seems to have fallen off the radar. The main character's a troubled boy at a remote boarding school who develops an intense friendship with another boy, an orphan who lives alone. Things--and people--are not what they seem.  I must mention here that Meg Rosoff's newest book Picture Me Gone is on my TBR stack and I keep hesitating to pick it up--not because I don't want to read it, but because I like knowing that I've got a Meg Rosoff book still to be opened and treasured.

8. Book That Flew Under the Radar and Deserves Wider Readership. The award goes to Jennifer Castle's You Look Different in Real Life, which also wins the coolest premise award. Here's the blurb I wrote on Goodreads:
"Five teens chosen to appear in a documentary film every five years... but it's the voice of the main character, Justine, that pushes this novel into what will surely be readers' Top Ten of the Year lists. Justine is insightful and brilliantly observant--mixed with a bit of biting snark. What's it like to grow up on film? To have your childhood memories edited and manipulated? Is it ethical to portray people's most intimate and heartbreaking moments for an audience's entertainment? Absorbing read that you'll be thinking about long after you finish."

9. And finally, last but not least, in the category of Book I Wish Existed When I Was a Kid Award: Gary D. Schmidt's Okay for Now. This book came out in 2011 and was one of the runners up for the National Book Award--deservedly so. Main character Doug's just moved to a new town, a dump, he thinks, and he's far from thrilled. He's far from thrilled about most things. His crappy family life. School. What looks like a dead end future. The narrative voice is funny, though, so all of this isn't too unbearable. Slowly, readers are sucked into Doug's new life in his new dumpy town, and slowly, he (and we) see that maybe the place isn't such a dump after all, and maybe too, it's how we view ourselves and others that makes all the difference.

PS: Yesterday the American Library Association gave out the official Printz Award for Best Young Adult book of the year to a book I haven't read yet but undoubtedly will:

Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Random Thoughts on the Teacher/Writer Road (Part One)

First, I need to put it out there how much of a wimp I am when it comes to long solo driving trips. I've tried to analyze this sad fact about myself before. I think it's a mixture of boredom and anxiety. I'm alone. In the car. Treking down unfamiliar highways. I've laid out what I think I will need within fingertip reach:

Bottled water, cap loosened
A bag o' peanuts for snacking
My Yahoo map (as a back-up to my GPS)
An audio book for entertainment--all of the cds helpfully taken out of their sleeves for easy grabbing whilst driving

I have a weird thoughts when I am on the road. Passing through little towns clumped along the highway, I wonder, WHO lives in these little towns? Do these people ever look out their windows at the cars speeding past? I stop at a fast-food place or a gas station just off the interstate feeling like I am emerging from dreamy car cocoon, like I haven't talked to another human in years.

This particular trip I am driving through West Virginia. Snow blows around the car. The roads, for the most part, are empty. It's strange. As if the highway is rolling out ahead just for me. I shoot through tunnels that burrow under mountains and try not to have a panic attack. How big is this mountain anyway? How the heck did people once carve a tunnel through it? And then, whew, I am on the other side.

A shout out here to audio books. When they are good, they truly help pass the time. For this trip I am listening to the second book in the Raven Boys series by Maggie Stiefvater. God love the actor who's reading it. It's killing me how raspy and rich and deep the guy's voice is. Whenever I stop the car to take a bathroom break or stretch my legs in line for fries at Wendys, the guy's voice trails me out of the car. My dreams that night are filled with him.

I arrive at my first destination. To break up the trip, I'm staying with my aunt and uncle--dear relatives I have not seen in several years. I'm touched that they have invited extended family in the area to dinner in my honor.

This is a Dinner with a capital D. Turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes. Dessert and drinks. One of my cousins has a little girl who has read my book. Three times. She is carrying it around with her and smiling. I am blown away by this reception.

And then the visit is over all too soon and I am back in the car listening to the raspy-voiced guy again.

A side note here about how you set up school visits: It's all about who you know. (At least this is how it is for me at this early stage in my career.) I put the word out to my friends and family that I am available to do school visits--book talks and writing lessons etc. and the ones who happen to have connections to schools, set the visits in motion. Next thing you know I am standing in front of five classes of students, talking about the Hero's Journey as it pertains to biographies or expounding upon the revision process or offering tips on writing college essays.

I am eating lunch with budding writers and answering questions about writer's block and point of view and revising and thinking about how freaking insightful and creative kids are.

I must mention here that two girls, both fifth graders, offered me their manuscripts to read. I am always a little nervous about reading student work. I don't know what it is going to be like and I am very aware how vulnerable a beginning writer can be to criticism.

Well. I did not have to worry about these girls. I read both of their novels eagerly and easily, amazed at the level of sophistication and humor and suspense. Ten years from now, maybe less, I fully expect to see the books of Sofia C. and Abby F. on the bookstore shelves. And I have no doubt that one day they will be chugging around the highways and byways and visiting schools near you.

Tune in next week for the road home: The Polar Vortex edition...

Friday, January 10, 2014

A Former Teacher Turned Author Takes the Show on the Road

I was such an idealistic goofball when I stepped into my first classroom. I'd just turned 23 (only a few years older than the high school juniors I was teaching), but I told myself that I was much more mature and worldy and experienced than the "kids," as I called them.

Hey! I was armed with beautifully written lesson plans and a crazy English major-y love for Literature with a capital L. I pictured myself as the female version of the Robin Williams character in The Dead Poet's Society. Oh, I would stand upon my desk! I would spout Romantic Poetry! My passion would influence the students to start secret literary clubs!

Here's what actually happened:

1. Kids chatted while I was teaching. They roamed around the room. They raised their hands a lot to request passes to go to the bathroom. They came late (when they weren't skipping my class).

2. Only a handful of kids did the homework I assigned, and most of those cheated off each other.

3. A kid jumped out one of my windows.

4. Once, I caught a boy cheating during a test and I reprimanded him and he told me to do something that I will leave to your imagination. Blank My Blank was the gist of it. (He was suspended for three days.)

5. Several kids dropped out of school.

6. Several girls got pregnant.

7. A girl almost bled to death after being bitten by a pig (This is a story that I will leave for another time.)

7. I cried most days. Other days, I gazed out the window longingly and imagined myself jumping out (as the boy did) and taking off running up the hill. This momentary fantasy was actually a turning point. It made me laugh, and once I rediscovered my humor about all of this, I realized that maybe I could handle these kids.

It would take adjusting some of my expectations. And I'd have to be a little more tough. I swung too far in the other direction the next year, but I'd like to think that I found a proper balance between discipline and Robin Williams in the years that followed.

I loved teaching. I loved my students. (Er, most of them) I still dreamed of passing on a smidgen of my love for literature. But mostly, I just wanted to make my class a safe place where the kids knew what was expected, where they'd learn something occasionally, and maybe where we would all share a laugh or two.

It was hard to walk away from teaching to focus on pursuing my dream of becoming a published writer. And I must say that one of THE coolest things about being a published writer is that I am able to step back into the classroom again.

I'm visiting many schools this winter and spring, kicking all of this off with a whirlwind trip to North Carolina next week. Long time readers of On The Verge  know that solo travel is kinda challenging for me (see here), but I am happy to say that I am getting over this hump.

I thought it would be fun to post my impressions of my Writing/Teaching on the Road Trip. So tune in for that soon...

In the meantime, take a look at this adorably innocent yet terrified face of a first year teacher:

Thursday, January 2, 2014

I Fail Spectacularly at my Attack the Stack Reading Challenge

It was a totally doable goal.

I thought.

Gather up the books around my house--books I'd been meaning to dip into for a while (sometimes, for years). Used books from library book sales. Brand new books piled next to my bed or in the bathroom. Books for work. Trashy books and high brow literature and skipped-along-the-way classics--gather ALL of these books together, stack them up, and, um, READ them over the course of the year.

Since I am a goal oriented person, a dutiful rule follower who delights in fun challenges, I thought I could easily "win."

Turns out I am a rule breaker with an anti-authoritarian streak. Yes, I am aware that the authority in the equation happens to be myself.

I did not read all the books in my stack. In fact, I ended up with another stack. And these stacks reproduced to create others.

Here are the books on my bedside table...

And look! Here are the books piled precariously next to my head as I am writing this blog post.
And the remainders of the other stacks, plus new arrivals.
Some stuff I learned about myself despite my spectacular failure:

1. I want to read what I want to read when I want to read it.
2. I still have a hard time putting a book down when I don't like it. I DID do this a few times, but I felt guilty. It's stupid and silly but there you go.
3. I am glad I attempted this challenge anyway. I read some books that were amazing, books I'm not sure I would've picked up if they hadn't been on my stack.
4. BUT, I also discovered new (or new to me) books that I didn't want to put off reading, and I like the freedom of being able to read those without feeling some weird self-imposed guilt.
5.  A side note here: I love reading YA books, but I think I need more of a mixture when it comes to genres and age groups. Some of my favorite books this year fell totally outside my comfort zone of reading taste.
5. I want to make another challenge for this year, something that gives me the challenge-y/goalish push that I kinda need, while at the same time providing the wiggle room/flexiness that I apparently need too.

So, without further ado I hereby introduce the 2014 FLEXY BOOK CATEGORY CHALLENGE!!!

Read at least one book per category. That's it. The only rule.

The Categories

1. YA contemporary
2. YA fantasy/Sci Fi/dystopian
3. YA historical
4. YA from a debut writer
5. YA from a writer I've missed along the way
6. Adult fiction
7. Adult non-fiction
8. A classic I'm ashamed to say I've never read
9. A re-read of an old favorite
10. Poetry
11. A short story collection
12. A graphic novel
13. A picture book
14. A middle grade book
15. A book on the craft of writing

PS. I am not giving up on my stack; there are lots of very cool-looking books that I suspect I will love if I pick them up.

For the record, here are the books I read in 2013 with a note if they were on the original stack and a link if I reviewed.

1. Altered, Jennifer Rush (stack)
2. Crown of Embers, Rae Carson (stack)
3. Send, Patty Blount
4. The Earth, My Butt, & Other Round Things, Carolyn Mackler (stack)
5. Wintergirls, Laurie Halse Anderson (stack)
6. Divergent, Veronica Roth (stack)
7. Ask the Passengers, A. S. King (stack)
8. Try Not to Breathe, Jennifer R. Hubbard
9. Henry Franks, Peter Adam Solomon
10. Pushing the Limits, Katie McGarry
11. Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
12. Honey, Baby, Sweetheart, Deb Caletti (stack)
13. The Arrival, Shawn Tan
14. Tales from Outer Suburbia, Shawn Tan
15. What I Was, Meg Rosoff (stack)
16. Insurgent, Veronica Roth
17. You Look Different in Real Life, Jennifer Castle
18. Tension of Opposites, Kristina McBride
19. The Fiction Class, Susan Breen (stack)
20. Raven Boys, Maggie Steifvater (stack)
21. A Trick of the Light, Lois Metzger
22. High Tide in Tucson, Barbara Kingsolver (stack)
23. Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell
24. Being Henry David, Cal Armistead
25. Where I Want to Be, Adele Griffin (stack)
26. Picture Perfect, Alessandra Thomas
27. Shadow and Bone, Leigh Bardugo (stack)
28. Pretty Girl, 13, Liz Coley
29. The Ward, Jordana Frankel
30. Soul of a Dog, Jon Katz (stack)
31. Many Stones, Carolyn Coman (stack)
32. Reboot, Amy Tintura
33. The Lucy Variations, Sara Zarr
34. 17 & Gone, Nova Ren Suma
35. How My Summer Went up in Flames, Jennifer Doktorski
36. Dear Life You Suck, Scott Blagdon
37. Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets, Evan Roskos
38. Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell
39. The Very Thought of You, Rosie Alison (stack)
40. Of Human Bondage, W. Somerset Maugham (stack)
41. Miss Peregrine's House for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs
42. The Bitter Kingdom, Rae Carson
43. Insomnia, JR Johanson
44. Fat Kid Rules the World, KL Going
45. The Fifth Wave, Rick Yancey
46. The Ballad of Jessie Pearl, Shannon Hitchcock
47. Send Me a Sign, Tiffany Schmidt
48. The Sweet Dead Life, Joy Preble
49. The Beginning of Everything, Robyn Schneider
50. Rotten, Michael Northrop
51. Elsewhere, Richard Russo
52. Morning Girl, Michael Dorris
53. Rufus Goes to School, Kim Griswell
54. The Last Anniversary, Liane Moriarty
55. Burning, Elana K. Arnold
56. September Girls, Bennett Madison
57. Fall for Anything, Courtney Summers
58. If You Find Me, Emily Murdoch
59. The Sixes, Kate White
60. Until It Hurts to Stop, Jennifer R. Hubbard
61. Famous Last Words, Jennifer Doktorski
62. The Daughter of Smoke & Bone, Laini Taylor
63. Lonesome Road, Martha Bennett Stiles
64. Never Let You Go, Emma Carlson Berne
65. Okay For Now, Gary D. Schmidt  (stack)
66. Me Before You, Jojo Moyes
67. Bloom, Elizabeth Scott
68. Cracked up to Be, Courtney Summers
69. Some Girls Are, Courtney Summers
70. Writing Past Dark, Bonnie Freidman
71. Wired for Story, Lisa Cron
72. Loving Frank, Nancy Horan (stack)
73. This Is Not a Test, Courtney Summers
74. A Summons to Memphis, Peter Taylor